NBC Promotes as 'New' Murtha's Stale Charge About Marines Killing Iraqi Civilians

On the six month anniversary of Democratic Congressman John Murtha's successful publicity stunt call for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, Wednesday's NBC Nightly News jumped on the chance to highlight Murtha's charge that last November some Marines deliberately killed more than a dozen innocent Iraqi civilians. But in treating Murtha as some kind of authoritative figure making “new allegations,” NBC ignored how the fairly well established as accurate charge (pictures exist of the immediate aftermath and three Marine officers were relieved of their commands) is old and has already been widely-reported -- including on the March 20 NBC Nightly News.

Brian Williams touted: "There are disturbing new allegations tonight from the Congressman and decorated Marine veteran who stunned the Bush administration about six months ago with his call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.” Following a rundown from Jim Miklaszewski of the allegations, Williams trumpeted Murtha's credibility and relevance: “Jim, we should go over again, why is it significant that John Murtha is the one saying this?" Miklaszewski responded with Murtha's argument that the event bolsters his political point as to why the U.S. should leave Iraq, preceded by the misnomer that Murtha had “recently” turned against the war: “It's important because as somebody who recently turned against the war, Murtha held this up today as one of the reasons the U.S. military should get out of Iraq as soon as possible." (Transcript follows, as well as examples of earlier reporting on the November incident)

Back on the Monday, March 20 NBC Nightly News, Miklaszewski himself outlined the November incident:

“A team of Naval investigators on its way to Iraq tonight where 12 US Marines are accused of killing 15 Iraqi civilians including seven women and three children in a vengeful rage after one of their fellow Marines was killed by a roadside bomb. The incident occurred last November in the town of Haditha. Marines had originally claimed that some of the civilians were killed with a subsequent firefight with insurgents when the insurgents used the civilians as human shields, but many Iraqis, including medical staff who examined the bodies, said it appeared all of the civilians were shot with some precision and at close range. The formal criminal investigation was opened after some of the Marines had changed their original stories, and at least one military official said if the revised accounts from some of those Marines is true, this could get very ugly.”

On the same night's CBS Evening News, Lara Logan filed a story on the incident and David Martin followed up on the Friday, April 28 CBS Evening News in a story he began: “Pentagon officials tell CBS News the evidence turned up so far shows American Marines deliberately shot Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and tried to cover it up.” CNN aired stories in April and early May. A quick search via Nexis located dozens of print articles published throughout April in major newspapers and the wire services.

Nonetheless, NBC apparently saw another chance to champion Murtha. (To mark the six month anniversary of Murtha's November 17 attack on Bush's Iraq policy, Chris Matthews made Murtha his lead guest on Wednesday's Hardball on MSNBC and gave him air time to attribute the November incident to excessive “pressure” felt by stressed Marines forced to serve in a misguided war.)

The November 17, 2005 NewsBusters item, “Nets Lead With Murtha, Highlight His Ridicule of Cheney's Lack of Military Service,” recounted how the networks embraced Murtha, including the way Brian Williams led the NBC Nightly News by promoting his supposedly unique newsworthiness:
"Good evening. When one Congressman out of 435 members of Congress speaks out against the war in Iraq, it normally wouldn't be news, but it was today because of who he is. Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is a 37-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, who voted for both gulf wars. Vice President Cheney once called him one of his strongest allies in Congress back when Cheney ran the Pentagon. Today, John Murtha said the U.S. must get out of Iraq. It's a debate that has followed President Bush halfway around the world. We begin tonight with NBC's David Gregory, who's traveling with the President in South Korea."

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the May 17 NBC Nightly News story. Brian Williams introduced it:
"There are disturbing new allegations tonight from the Congressman and decorated Marine veteran who stunned the Bush administration about six months ago with his call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Tonight Congressman Jack Murtha, a Democrat from the state of Pennsylvania, is in the news again, and in a big way, accusing U.S. Marines of killing innocent civilians in cold blood. We're joined for more on this story tonight by our NBC News Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Jim, good evening."

Jim Miklaszewski: "Brian, this all stems from an incident that occurred last November, and today the military's investigation is still dragging on. From the very beginning, Iraqis in the town of Haditha claimed U.S. Marines deliberately killed at least 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including seven women and three children. This young Iraqi girl claims the Marines killed six members of her family, including her parents. 'The Americans came into the room where my father was praying,' she says, 'and shot him.' Today, in a remarkable statement in Washington, Democratic Congressman John Murtha claims it's true."

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), in press conference: "There was no firefight. There was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Miklaszewski: "Military officials today tell NBC News the Marine Corps' own evidence appears to show Murtha is right. The Marines first claimed the civilians were killed by the same IED that also killed a fellow Marine or were caught in a crossfire between the Americans and the enemy. But military officials say Marine Corps photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range in the head and chest, execution style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead. One military official familiar with the investigation says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine. Three Marine officers, commanders in Haditha, have been relieved of duty. At least 12 Marines in all are under investigation for what would be the worst single incident involving the deliberate killing of civilians by U.S. military in Iraq. And because the investigation is still open, the Marine Corps said today it can't comment on the case, but one military official tells us this one is ugly. Brian?”

Williams: "And, Jim, we should go over again, why is it significant that John Murtha is the one saying this?"

Miklaszewski: "Well, as a former Marine, he's considered pretty close to the Corps still, and one of the Capitol Hill's ultimate military insiders. In fact, one of his aides said today Murtha got his information from military officials. And it's important because as somebody who recently turned against the war, Murtha held this up today as one of the reasons the U.S. military should get out of Iraq as soon as possible."
Criticizing the war was not new for Murtha in November of 2005. As the May 7, 2004 MRC CyberAlert noted, Ted Koppel featured Murtha's anti-war take as he “opened the May 6 Nightline, over video of bomb-damaged trucks and Humvees and a wounded U.S. soldier: 'No one ever said it would be easy, but few predicted it would be like this. Today, the most hawkish Democrat on the Hill said this: [Murtha]: 'We can not prevail in this war at the policy that’s going today.'"
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center